Broad Political Context of Youth and Leadership in Kenya.

Kenyan youth actively participating in a political activity.
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Perhaps more than any other demographic group, young people in Kenya often present a huge source of political energy and excitement during elections. When youth are not contesting elections, they are most visible as frontline foot soldiers mobilized for mass appearance in political rallies, demonstrations and other campaign related activities. Sometimes seen as cheap political hirelings and contract rubble-rousers, the youth play an important role in demonstrating the political muscle and show of might by candidates.

The history of youth and politics in Africa is awash with exploitation by the elderly ruling elite, exclusion from formal spaces of state policymaking and socio-economic disillusionment. Abbink (2005) observes that this situation has led to the African youth being overrepresented in armed rebel groups and criminal gangs advancing interests of the political class. The Kenyan context is no different. Peter Kagwanja (2005) argues that the first two regimes of independent Kenya rendered the youth politically powerless through patrimonial politics characterized by constitutional encumbrance, public executions, assassinations and co-optation. The post independent historical development of youth and politics in Kenya has been generally defined by some key episodes. These are, the era of youth wings, jeshi la wazee, lobby groups, Young Turks and the renewed generational change narrative (Mwangola, 2007).

According to Mwangola, it is in the first three decades after independence that the youth were engaged in politics in the form of youth wings. The youth wings, popular in Kiswahili as ‘Watu wa Mkono’ (loosely translated as handymen) basically characterized a relationship between the youth and the elderly political elite from different factions where the former were deployed to execute the latter’s instructions in physical political spaces. This period was followed by one at the advent of multiparty politics in 1990s in which these youth wings were gradually transformed either into private armies or lobby groups (Kagwanja, 2005; Mwangola, 2007). The private armies, referred to as ‘Jeshi la Mzee’ were groups which identified either with political parties or powerful wealthy individuals. These groups were often associated with political violence with instruction from their masters. Mwangola asserts that the lobby groups were a sophisticated version of the youth wings and who, in contrast to the goon image ubiquitous of the jeshi la wazee youth groups, oozed an academic, professional and moneyed image, but an image nonetheless created and exploited by the older politicians for votes. The current Deputy President was in this category under the name YK’92 (Youth for KANU-1992) lobby group that was campaigning for the (re)election of the then incumbent president Daniel Arap Moi in the multiparty elections of 1992.

There is no consensus among analysts of youth and politics at this point as to whether the lobby groups were distinct from those branded as Young Turks. Nonetheless, the early 1990s represent the period in recent history when the involvement of an evidently younger generation of activist politicians became most pronounced in the struggles for Kenya’s democratic transformation. This was the context in which ‘Young Turks’, a group of political apprentices emerged and began crafting their own identities off the older politicians (Mwangola, 2007).

The  formation  of  the  Forum  for  Restoration  of  Democracy  (FORD)  in  1991  as  a  formidable  opposition  gave  the  so called  ‘Young  Turks’  like  Kiraitu  Murungi,  Gitobu  Imanyara,  Paul  Muite,  Wamalwa Kijana,  Raila  Odinga  among  others  a  platform  to  rise  into  national  limelight  and  leadership.  FORD  availed a  political  space that  enabled  these  rising lights  to  contribute  to the  struggle  for  multipartyism.  As  these  emerging  leaders  found  tutelage  under  the  founding leaders  of  FORD  among  them  Joseph  Martin  Shikuku,  Masinde  Muliro,  Jaramogi  Oginga Odinga,  Ahmed  Salim  Bamahriz,  George  Nthenge  and  Philip  Gachoka.

President  Moi’s  government  responded  by  creating  the  equally  youthful  platform  dubbed Youth  for  KANU  92 (YK’92)  as  a  means  to  counter  the  ‘Young  Turks’  phenomenon  within  the opposition  forces.  Among  the  leading  lights  within  the  outfit  are current William  Ruto  and  Cyrus  Jirongo,  a wealthy  businessman cum deputy  president politician.  With  time,  YK’92 would  turn  into  a  vigilantelike  entity  that  threatened  both  citizens  and  opposition  supporters with  political  violence.  It  is  thought  that  the  energy  of  YK’92  contributed  significantly  to  Moi’s  reelection  and  KANU’s  retention  of  political  power.  Although  YK’92  was  revived  a  decade later  in  2002  and  rebranded  as  KANU  Action  Group,  it  had  minimal  impact  as  KANU  faced a resounding  defeat  across  the  country by  the  opposition  National  Alliance  Rainbow  Coalition (NARC).  That  different  political  parties  consciously  created  space  for youthful  politicians and  sought  political  credit  for  it  demonstrates  the  significance  of  youth  both  in  practice  and perception  in competitive  politics. Today  as  the  Young  Turks  of  the  multiparty  struggle  tread  between  their  50s  and  70s,  most of  them  still  hold  significant  positions  in  their  current  political  parties,  and  the  emergence of  a  younger  generation  of  leadership,  the  post Young  Turks  generation  seem  to  have  hit  a snag.  Different  factions  of  the  Young  Turks  class  that  emerged  in  the  1990s  have  taken  stints in  government  without  meaningful  transformation  of  the  grievances  often  advanced  by  the youth  as  a  constituency.  Consequently,  there  seem  to  be  a  renewed  interest  in  revisiting  the youth  question  in  Kenya  partly  because  of  these  frustrations  and  as  an  exploration  of  spaces created  by  the  new constitution.  Within  political  parties,  new  calls  for  a  generational  change now  emerge.

~Reflections  on  Kenya’s  2013  General  Elections


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